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Commentary

Has Mercosur Gone Bananas?


     
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WASHINGTON—While the world was focused on the tragic events taking place in Lebanon and northern Israel, something very disturbing happened in South America last week. The trading bloc known as Mercosur (the South American common market), at its summit meeting in the Argentine city of Cordoba, formally supported Venezuela's bid for one of the two Latin American seats on the United Nations Security Council.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had worked the summit to make sure he could defeat Guatemala, Washington's preferred candidate, and gain the coveted seat when Argentina's two-year term expires in October. Chavez wants to become a world power broker as a member of the Security Council that will deal with highly sensitive issues such as Iran and North Korea. The seat would also make him the voice of Latin America at the U.N.

Mercosur comprises Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and, as of last week, Venezuela—with Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia as associate members. The formal declaration of support means that most of South America is now behind Chavez's bid. Until the summit, there was a chance that Chile, whose moderate left-wing government follows a very different path than the one chosen by Chavez, would promote a third candidacy, perhaps with the support of Peru's new president, Alan Garcia. But Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is strenuously attempting to bring her country into the South American political fold after many years of what was perceived as Chile's aloofness and even arrogance due to its economic success. It is hard to see how she would stand up to the Mercosur trading bloc, especially after the announcement was made in her presence and she did not express any reservations.

Adding insult to the injury, Mercosur invited Fidel Castro to the summit and signed a ''trade'' deal with him that was more political than commercial, while the host nation, Argentina, provided him with a platform for a three-hour speech at the University of Cordoba in which he defended everything that Mercosur is supposedly against: one-party rule, jailing political opponents, ideological confrontation with the U.S., and a socialist economy.

So, have the Mercosur countries all gone bananas? Yes. Forget the fact that Chavez is offering to supply natural gas to the Southern Cone countries through a 5,000-mile pipeline. What's really driving these countries are an inferiority complex, ideological adultery and an economic misconception.

The inferiority complex is a case of reverse nordomania The term—a mania for all things northern—was coined by Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rodo a century ago to signify what he thought was a Latin American tendency to copy U.S. materialism. Today, the moderate left-wing governments of Latin America have shaken off many of their old left vices, but still cling to the superstition that dignity means backing anything that happens to displease the U.S. even at the cost of Latin America's development.

Ideological adultery comes from the fact that moderate left-wing governments are married to democracy and private enterprise at home—the boring wife—but unleash their carnal instincts on Chavez—the voluptuous lover—in matters of foreign policy. They would not dream of destroying their own democratic systems, sending mobs to beat up opponents, expropriating agricultural and industrial businesses, protecting Colombian terrorists and making crude comments about the U.S. secretary of state. But they love to make up for their moderate behavior at home by throwing at their barking constituents the crumbs of (occasional) foreign policy radicalism. Start by drinking holy water and you will end up believing, said French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Mercosur countries would do well to heed these words.

And, finally, the economic misconception resides in the belief that economic power comes from regional protectionism. Since its creation in 1991, Mercosur has failed to generate wealth because it reproduced at the regional level the national barriers to the free flow of goods, services, ideas and people. The result has been constant dispute—from the one between Brazil and Argentina over car exports to the current brawl between Argentina and neighboring Uruguay over the latter country’s green light to the construction of two pulp mills near the border. Chile, the best economy in the region, has not joined Mercosur because the rules forbid member countries from pursuing open trade with nations outside the bloc. The protectionism of Mercosur will be reinforced by Venezuela's incorporation.

These—and not Chavez’s pipeline—are the main reasons why Mercosur is backing his bid for a seat at the U.N. Security Council.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post Writers Group
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